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Let's assume for a moment that this line represents your set of personal religious beliefs.
It’s your 'faith line', and it is unique to you.
The shape of your faith line is formed by the specific series of decisions that has led you to your particular religious position. (For illustrative purposes, let's say that this position is a form of Methodism.)
At each decision point along the way it is implicitly understood that there were alternative options open to you that, if followed, would have led to different decision branches, a different belief set, perhaps even belief in a completely different religion. This would have resulted in a faith line of a distinctly different shape.
But this is the unique permutation of decisions you have made.
This is your faith line.
The problem is this: When it comes to our religion, we tend to start at the conclusion.
As Pierre Charron once noted, we are baptised or circumcised a Christian or a Jew, long before we are even aware that we are human. Through a simple accident of birth geography, followed by early indoctrination while the critical mind is still developing, we almost without exception go on to inherit the precise religious strain of our parents or surrounding culture.
It is only once we reach the age of reason that we then subconsciously work our way backwards, retro-fitting the decisions of our faith line to match our pre-determined destination.
Of course, we do realise that there are other religions out there, but as far as we are concerned our position is supported by a clear path of logic.
Because, when we start from the twig, it is easy to trace our way down the branches, right back to the root of the tree.
But clearly the process has been unnaturally turned on its head...
This tree is intended purely as a rough illustration of the religious decision process and in no way represents the true relationship and probability weightings of different options, the flow and scale of the decision process, or the sheer extent of choices available at each step. (It has been calculated that there are more than 33,800 distinct denominations within Christianity alone.)
Note that, in spite of these limitations, this tree does clearly demonstrate the false dichotomy at the heart of such theistic arguments as Pascal’s (Catholicism) Wager, and in the Christian fundamentalists’ belief that, if they successfully discredit the Theory of Evolution, they will have provided positive proof for their creation story as ‘the’ alternative.
The only rational approach is to start fresh at the root of religious philosophy and work our way up the tree of knowledge of god, carefully weighing the options at each fork, free of any pre-existing faith commitment bias.
Are you confident that, if you did so, you would find your own way back to the exact same twig, based on an objective evaluation of each option along the way?
Leaving aside the fact that we tend only to have a rudimentary knowledge of the other 'popular' options out there, and that we cannot possibly have anything close to a coherent understanding of all possible alternatives, there is a much bigger problem to overcome.
As we have seen in this book, due to the observed and replicated neurobiological basis of religious experiences, and the mind's clear susceptibility to bio-chemical imbalance, electromagnetic stimulation, disease, injury, fear, stress, patterns, cultural indoctrination, and our strong subconscious desire for existential meaning at any cost, there is, at the very least, reasonable doubt that a god even exists.
Religion, then, may well be ‘stumped’ at the very first hurdle. It takes a major assumption to get past this initial fork, let alone to be assured that you can find your way, using impartial reasoning, through a myriad of subsequent decision branches to the precise twig that represents your current conception of god.
An unbiased evaluation of the evidence currently at hand, therefore, should lead the open-minded, rational investigator to automatic technical agnosticism and, justifiably, a provisional practical atheism.
And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed.
Thomas Hardy, God’s Funeral, c1909
© J R Curry (firstname.lastname@example.org) 2010